Star light, star bright: Careers and stars don’t end — they slowly transition to something just as bright

When a star is born
They possess a gift or two
One of them is this
They have the power to make a wish come true

Bruce Hrivnak, Ph.D., professor of physics and astronomy, has had his head in the stars nearly all his life. He has spent all but a few years of his four-decade career as a professor of physics and astronomy at Valparaiso University. It seems only appropriate that he now winds down his career like so many of the stars that he studies — slowly, but shining brightly all along the way.

Professor Hrivnak has left the classroom, having taught his last class in the spring 2018 semester, but will continue as a senior research professor mentoring students and studying stars as they near the end of their nearly 10-billion-year life spans.

It is that research that has helped define Professor Hrivnak’s career as well as establish Valpo as a premier undergraduate research facility for budding astronomers. The National Science Foundation has funded the research since 1989 via a series of grants, with the most recent grant ending in 2019. What makes this research unique is the involvement of students at the undergraduate level, Professor Hrivnak says.

But none of it would be possible without the telescope at the Valpo Observatory.

“We are fortunate to get funding. It’s not easy,” Professor Hrivnak says. “But just as important is that we have direct, regular access to a telescope and the students can do hands-on work right here. For many of the students it is their first time doing research.”

The fact Valpo undergrads are leading the research was important to Professor Hrivnak.

“I remember the impact research had on me as a student,” he says. “The hands-on work I did helped me appreciate it more and stay motivated.”

For the past 25 years, 60 different students have worked with Professor Hrivnak at the observatory. Many went on to careers as high school physics teachers and college professors. Some continued as researchers, including Kristie Nault ’12, who worked with Professor Hrivnak for three summers during her undergrad years at Valpo and who, following graduate school, spent several years doing research on earth-crossing asteroids at Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

“Being able to do research as an undergrad, especially the hands-on experience at the on-campus telescope, has had a great impact on my career,” Kristie says. “This is a unique opportunity for Valpo astronomy students. My experience at Valpo’s telescope allowed me to easily transition to different telescopes in grad school, and all that experience combined helped me get my first professional position. Being able to do all the research I did as an undergrad gave me a four-year boost on my career.”

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have this wish I wish tonight.

While a shooting star isn’t a star at all, but a meteor that is burning up when entering the earth’s atmosphere, it is a way to understand the work Professor Hrivnak and his students have done for three decades.

In academic terms, the research has been actively engaged in the identification and study of proto-planetary nebulae, objects in transition between the red giant and planetary nebula phases in the evolution of stars. In practical terms, the research is focused on the final phases of stars as their 10-billion-year life spans come to an end.

“If a star’s life was 75 years long,” Professor Hrivnak explains, “then we would be studying just 15 minutes of that life.”

The work was initially in conjunction with an astronomy research team from the University of Calgary and, more recently, with various national and international astronomers. It has taken Professor Hrivnak and others to telescopes in Arizona, Chile, and Hawaii and even utilized data from the space-based Hubble Space Telescope.

Professor Hrivnak and his students have focused on following about two dozen stars in the proto-planetary nebula state. The research has helped them determine just what makes up the gaseous portions of a star, and the different elements tell them about the various stages a star goes through as it spends its last few thousand years.

Just like those stars, it seems Professor Hrivnak has had quite the impact.

“Bruce has meant a great deal to Valpo, to my studies, and to my career,” Kristie says. “He brought many research opportunities to Valpo students. As a professor, he cared greatly for his students and took a much bigger interest in them than many other professors did; he made astronomy very approachable and enjoyable for all his students.”

For Kristie, personally, Professor Hrivnak gave her the universe.

“For me, when I was a student at Valpo, he always pushed me both in his classes and as a research student,” she says. “I found that later, in either grad school or my career, I had a much greater appreciation for astronomy and put a great deal of effort and detail into everything I did, school work or research. Through Bruce’s teaching and mentoring, I learned how to be a professional astronomer and how to take great care in all my work. I am who I am today as an astronomer and as a person because of Bruce’s influence.”

Brad Spitzbart ’97, a math major, continues to live by the lessons he learned more than 20 years ago when he spent time working alongside Professor Hrivnak and other students at the observatory.

“I still have my lab notebook from the first course I took in astronomy, meticulously kept as Professor Hrivnak insisted,” Brad says. “The experience at the observatory really solidified my interest and aptitude in scientific research, especially astronomy. Along the way, I had the pleasure of spending long nights at the observatory, productive days in the computer room, and leading public open houses with a uniquely diverse group of fellow students.”

Brad currently facilitates multidisciplinary research at Stony Brook University after more than 15 years at NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“The early undergraduate research opportunities and mentoring provided by Professor Hrivnak and others at Valpo have given me lifelong skills to thrive in my career,” Brad says.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky

Professor Hrivnak will continue his research and mentor tomorrow’s astronomers. While his days in the classroom are behind him, just like those stars, he has plenty left to do before he fades with the sunset.

“Valpo has been a special place to me; it proves you don’t have to be a large graduate program to carry out research,” he says. “I truly get to live and study among the stars.”